Do you know who your boss is? Wherever you are in the world, it’s getting harder to tell who’s responsible for making your workday miserable.
When Walmart warehouse workers in California and Illinois went on strike last month, they weren’t just challenging the world’s retail hegemon, they were rising up against a broader global traffic in manpower. Many of the protesting workers had been hired indirectly through staffing agencies.
Working through agencies has become the new normal. Instead of the traditional way of connecting people to work – employing them directly – corporations rely on agencies to supply workers in various industries, from shipping to electronics, while minimizing obligations to offer job security or decent working conditions. It’s a perfect tool for displacing regular workers and doing end-runs around unions and workers’ rights.
A new global union coalition, the Geneva-based IndustriALL, has pioneered a movement to confront this emerging régime of “precarious labor.” The group’s new report calls out these agencies, the unscrupulous firms who use them, and the government policies that abet the downward spiral of deteriorating rights and labor conditions.
The report, drawing from data in several countries, shows exactly why agency labor is so appealing to capital. Fluid workforces are structurally designed to be unstable, allow industry more latitude to marginalize workers through outside agencies.
According to the report, “the industry’s global annual sales revenue increased from €83 billion [$103.4 billion] in 1996 to €203 billion [$265.1 billion] in 2009 and the number of agency workers has more than doubled over the same period.” The organization says this system effectively the different players involved – the contractor, the “user” company, and workers – to keep employees isolated and thus more vulnerable.
It’s a win-win for firms, which get the labor of a regular workforce without taking on the responsibilities. Workers, meanwhile, are typically deprived of adequate union representation or other leverage to hold the contractor or the firm responsible on issues like leave benefits and workplace safety. That leaves them vulnerable to discrimination and unfair treatment.
The proportion of the workforce employed through agencies varies by country, and statistical data can be murky, but agency-based employment pervades both rich and poor countries, prompting outcry among labor activists from Colombia to India to Indonesia.
IndustriALL reports that “Approximately 60% of the 400,000 workers in Mexico’s electronics industry work for temporary agencies, with some companies employing as much as 90% of their workforce through agencies.” The system has captured tens of thousands of workers in Russia’s chaotic economy, with agencies serving “nearly 75% of foreign companies and 35 – 50% of Russian companies.” In Spain, where austerity budgets and neoliberal policies are driving massive unemployment and social unrest, “temporary work constitutes 30.9% of all employment, and agency work accounts for 1 in 6 of all temporary contracts.”
One study on Indian workers “found that 30% of all workers in the private sector are employed via contractors, with levels in manufacturing up to 50%.” In China, manpower agencies have become a pillar of the labor market, offering “an estimated 60 million labour dispatch temporary workers.” Nokia and Apple, as well as government-run companies, are known to stock their assembly lines with a dense second tier of contract labor, which tends to lack the rights and benefits of direct hires.
But for people who need work, a temp job is better than no job, right? Actually, what the labor agencies euphemistically describe as “flexible” labor is a dead end for countless workers. One study on workers in the Philippines shows, according to the report, “only 11% of agency workers move to regular, permanent or full-time work, 36% are not rehired and less than 1% of employers intend to convert agency jobs into regular positions.” In the U.S., just a fraction of temporary agency workers land a permanent position – maybe one reason why the chronic insecurity of the legions of underemployed workers persists despite the so-called economic “recovery.”
Though the report charges that agencies and their client firms often skirt labor regulations to exploit temporary and contractual labor, it also shows that effective legislation can check this trend. In India, Indonesia and other countries, some court rulings have defended workers from discriminatory treatment and labor abuses.
The trade union alliance Global Unions has issued a set of principles to prevent the practice from undermining labor rights, including:
- The primary form of employment shall be permanent, open-ended and direct employment.
- Workers provided by temporary work agencies must be accorded equal treatment and opportunities, including equal pay for equal work, with regular and permanent employees with respect to terms and conditions of employment.
- Workers employed through temporary work agencies must have a recognised and enforceable written contract of employment, specifying their terms and conditions of employment.
Jenny Holdcroft, IndustriALL’s director of Policy, Trade and Development, tells Working In These Times via email that one possible mode of resistance is for “unions to strike collective agreements with companies that set limits on their use of agency work.” At non-union workplaces, where organizing is sometimes actively suppressed, Holdcroft suggests, “We can tackle the problem at global level through Global Framework Agreements with multinational companies which include clauses to restrict agency work both in the company’s own global operations, as well as those of its suppliers.”
Then there’s good old-fashioned disobedience: On October 7, the World Day for Decent Work, workers around the globe, from Turkey to Chile to Norway, are engaging in coordinated demonstrations and rallies to oppose the expansion of precarious labor.
The globalization of agency labor may be a 21st century phenomenon, but the solution for workers might come down to grassroots resistance by simply refusing to comply with exploitation from any corporation or agency. If enough workers stand up, it doesn’t matter whom they call boss, so long as they’re ready to fight.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.